The death of Union Minister and a prominent Dalit leader Ram Vilas Paswan is bound to cast a shadow on the upcoming Assembly elections in Bihar, with a bearing on almost every political move by the key players in the political drama. The State is going to polls later this month in the middle of a raging coronavirus pandemic, posing major challenges, not just for the Election Commission but also for the political parties. What was initially thought to be a dull and predictable affair, with the NDA largely expected to have an edge, has now turned dramatic with the exit of the Lok Janashakti Party (LJP) headed by Chirag Paswan. The intriguing part of the drama is that the LJP will remain a partner in the Central government while declaring an open battle with Nitish Kumar, NDA’s chief ministerial candidate. The LJP, which has a strong Dalit support base, has reiterated its loyalty to Prime Minister Narendra Modi while deciding to field candidates in constituencies where the JD(U) is in the fray and avoid challenging the BJP. This strategy has lent credence to the argument that it was all part of the saffron party’s long-term plan to edge out Nitish Kumar. Curiously, the LJP has hinted at support for the BJP in case it forms the government under its own chief minister. This is also an indication of simmering resentment against the Chief Minister in a section of the BJP which sees itself as the natural claimant to Bihar’s throne.
A piquant situation has arisen where the BJP is seeking a mandate under the leadership of Nitish Kumar even while having a friendly party in the opposition in the form of the LJP, which is asking for votes to displace the incumbent Chief Minister. This means that the post-election scenario could throw up surprises in the formation of the government. The opposition alliance is in a state of disarray. With Lalu Prasad out of action, his son Tejashwi being unable to match up, and the Congress remaining a marginal player, there is a sense of weariness and diffidence in the opposition camp. As a result, the nature of the political competition has shifted from one between the ruling alliance and the Opposition to the one within the parties of the ruling alliance. The voters are left confused because in several constituencies in the 243-member Assembly, both the NDA and the LJP will end up seeking votes in the name of Modi. In all likelihood, it is the post-poll manoeuvring that will decide who will get to rule Bihar. The elections will be an acid test for Nitish Kumar whose political capital is already being tested by the health emergency.
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